[Screen It]


(2014) (Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly) (PG)

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Drama: A small-town pastor must contend with the ramifications of his 4-year-old son stating he went to Heaven during emergency surgery.
In the small town of Imperial, Nebraska, Todd Burpo (GREG KINNEAR) is a busy man. Not only is he raising young kids Cassie (LANE STYLES) and Colton (CONNOR CORUM) with his wife, Sonja (KELLY REILLY), but he's also the school's wrestling coach, works as a volunteer fireman, runs his own garage door repair business and just so happens to be the local church's pastor. Up until now, the church members -- including bank president Jay Wilkins (THOMAS HADEN CHURCH) and Nancy Rawling (MARGO MARTINDALE) who lost her 19-year-old son in military action -- have been happy with Todd's leadership.

Accordingly, they don't mind that he misses time after breaking his leg while playing softball or when 4-year-old Colton's emergency appendectomy and recovery keep Todd away from the church. They do become concerned, however, when Todd's faith is noticeably shaken when Colton announces that he went to Heaven and met Jesus during his surgery. Todd and Sonja try to dismiss that as just the active imagination of a young boy, but when he starts commenting on things he'd otherwise not know about, Todd wonders if his boy really did.

Things become more complicated when word gets out about Colton's claims, and the church's board of directors -- that includes Jay and Nancy among a few others -- becomes concerned about that turning into a growing distraction. With mounting medical and other bills putting additional strain on Todd, the pastor tries to make sense of what's occurred and what it all means to him, his family and their faith.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
The old saying goes "Kids say the darndest things," but another, "Out of the mouths of babes (comes truth or wisdom)" actually stems from a passage in the King James Bible, Psalms 8:2 -- "Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength." That's relevant for this week's review of "Heaven is For Real" as a four-year-old character in it has some wise things to say to his pastor dad and others after a brief journey to Heaven and back.

The film is based on the 2010 book "Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back" written by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent that became a New York Times bestseller. While it's sold lots of copies to the devout, it's also generated criticism, both from secular circles but also some Christian ones that claimed some of its accounts don't jive with what the Bible says about all things Heaven related.

I'll leave the veracity of the novel up to the Biblical experts and instead will focus on whether this filmed adaptation works as a standalone piece. Aside from the massively budgeted "Noah" that was released just a few weeks ago, this is one of the more polished and high-pedigree Christian-based films to be released in some time.

Beyond starring the likes of Greg Kinnear, Thomas Hayden Church and Margo Martindale, it's directed by Randall Wallace, the director of "Secretariat" and "We Were Soldiers" and the Oscar-nominated writer of "Braveheart," with camerawork by Oscar-winning cinematographer Dean Semler ("Dances With Wolves") and a score by Nick Glennie-Smith ("The Man in the Iron Mask," "The Rock").

Working from a script by Chris Parker ("Battle of the Year"), Wallace has the story begin in Lithuania where we briefly see a young girl (unidentified until near the end where it's mentioned she's Akiane Kramarik) painting a portrait of Jesus. We then quickly segue to Imperial, Nebraska where we meet Todd Burpo (Kinnear) and his family, wife Sonja (Kelly Reilly), daughter Cassie (Lane Styles) and 4-year-old Colton (Connor Corum).

Despite (or perhaps because of) holding down various positions in the small town -- in addition to running his own garage door repair business, he also works as a volunteer fireman, coaches the high school wrestling team and serves as the church's pastor -- he's dead broke. That condition is exacerbated by huge medical bills stemming from young Colton undergoing an emergency appendectomy.

And that's when things get interesting as the boy claims -- despite it being confirmed that he wasn't ever clinically dead on the operating table -- to have had an out of body experience where he saw his dad and mom in the hospital. For reasons later expanded upon in the third act, this causes Todd to develop a crisis in his faith, especially when some additional observational revelations are made by the boy about his trip to Heaven and encounter with Jesus.

While those who buy hook, line and sinker into views of Christ in grilled cheese sandwiches, on the side of barns and such as a divine sign from above might believe that without pause, any logical person would question such claims. And that's not only because they're coming from a four-year-old, but also due to not falling in line with usual accounts of death, Heaven and so on (something that should have immediately added to the raising of red flags for the pastor).

It's not long before word gets out about the heavenly claims and Todd's place in the small town is put into jeopardy due to gossip, ridicule and even press interest. Granted, it's not exactly like he's building a ball field in the middle of his corn field in Iowa, an act that occurred in the far superior (and yes, pro religion) "Field of Dreams" that will likely come to mind to some or perhaps most everyone who sees this.

I'll admit that I haven't read the source material and thus don't know if the filmmakers opted to remain faithful, if you will, to the events that occurred within it. As this offering plays out, however, there's never any real mystery about the boy's claims (especially since we see a flashback to the journey and encounters with angels and Jesus) and everything ends up far too on the nose (unlike "Dreams" that, for the most part, used metaphors for getting the same sort of point across).

I appreciated having Kinnear's character go through his crisis of identity (he underplays the part nicely) as that ends up becoming the most interesting thing the film offers, and there are nice little moments scattered throughout (Kinnear's chemistry is good with Connor Corum who thankfully doesn't come off as a Hollywood creation with fabricated precociousness).

But most of the evidence and proof of the trip to Heaven are too easily explained away for a variety of reasons (while there's not enough sound/credible testing to validate or disprove those claims). Additionally, the film wraps up the pastor's identity and faith crisis far too quickly, making one wonder if perhaps additional footage was left on the editing room floor. As it stands, it's sort of like the filmmakers grew tired of playing up the conflict and just wanted to affirm where we knew the film was headed from the get-go (the title is, well, sort of a dead giveaway).

In the end, believers will believe and skeptics will scoff, while those of us looking for an artistically well-told telling of the tale will wish that some tweaks here and there had been applied to smooth over the rough edges as well as paint the overall offering with a shade of gray rather than as pure black and white. "Heaven is For Real" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 10, 2014 / Posted April 16, 2014

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